The Arkansas baseball team went to Houston with something to prove last weekend. The Razorbacks swept three games from ranked teams to jump as much as one dozen spots in several of the national polls, reaching as high as No. 12.
Now, the 8-0 Razorbacks have to make sure they are not feeling like they've got it made with red-hot Louisiana Tech coming to town on Wednesday. Game time at Baum Stadium is 3:05 p.m.
“We are a sitting duck,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said as his team began practice Tuesday afternoon.
“We need to come out with the same mindset that we've had, go pitch to pitch and don't take anything for granted.
“I don't want our team to be over confident.”
That was an interesting take from Van Horn on the game against the 5-2 Bulldogs. He could not have known that one hour earlier reporters were asking his players if the trip to Houston built some confidence.
“It definitely added a little bit,” said Michael Bernal, the shortstop who slammed three home runs in the victories over Rice, Houston and Texas Tech at Minute Maid Park.
Bernal said it was good to have some success on the field, but real confidence comes from knowing “you've put in the work. We have.”
It's about continuing to grind. It's the Van Horn mindset. Bernal beamed when he was told that Van Horn said he's pleased with the work ethic of this team and called them “gritty.” That's the way Van Horn plays and the way he coaches. There cannot be a better compliment.
“That's pretty good, coming from him,” Bernal said. “We know how he played. And, it's how he coaches.
“I think when Coach Van Horn talks about grit, he's talking about his guys working hard. That produces confidence. I think when you know you've worked hard, it gives you a little swag.
“I think everyone on our team knows they have put in the time. That's where our confidence comes. Our pitchers have put in the time. Our defense has put in the time to back them and we've worked hard on our offense.”
Bernal said the home runs aren't the result of trying to hit home runs. He said several have come when he's been behind in the count, or just trying to drive the ball with runners on base. He's hit four home runs so far this season, his total for last season.
“I wouldn't say I was looking for home runs,” he said. “I was just looking to hit the ball well. With runners on, you want to hit it hard somewhere.”
But the power is not a surprise to anyone. Bernal spent the summer and winter working with UA baseball strength coach Mike Strouhal. His legs and core strength has increased in a big way.
“It's not what I'd call a different physique,” Bernal said. “I don't look a lot different, but I'm stronger in a lot of ways. I do think Mike has helped me a lot.”
The Hogs lead the SEC with 12 home runs. They also lead the league with a .991 fielding percentage. They have made only three errors.
“I do think we have more power up and down the lineup,” Bernal said. “I think our guys have been in the workout room. They've put in the time. Like I said, it's about working. You put in the time, you get the results.”
Van Horn is excited to see the production at the bottom of the lineup. Bernal, batting eighth, has a .345 average and shares the team lead with 13 RBI. Catcher Tucker Pennell, batting ninth, is hitting .292 with a team high four doubles.
“I said I wanted us to be able to attack one through nine,” Van Horn said. “I think we've been able to do that.
“I'm not sure I'd have predicted Bernal would have four home runs, three in a major league park. But I'm not surprised, either.
“I did think Pennell was going to be a much better hitter this season. He's able to drive the ball.”
Bernal grew up in Texas watching the Astros play in Minute Maid Park.
“I've seen a lot of games on TV,” he said. “I have all of the visions of the baseball bouncing off the arches and off that wall. It was pretty cool to see that happen this weekend.”
Bernal said he doesn't really care where he hits in the lineup.
“I think what Coach Van Horn likes is experience up and down the batting order,” Bernal said. “I understand that. We do have experience.”
The Hogs have five seniors making significant contributions. One of them is transfer Doug Willey from Division II Franklin Pierce. He's Bernal's roommate. Willey has pitched in four games, tops on the team. He's likely going to be a setup man for Zach Jackson.
“He's been really good, but we aren't surprised,” Bernal said. “We saw him do it in the fall. And, he's like all of our guys, he put in the work.”
Van Horn was asked if Willey could take Jackson's role as closer, putting Jackson in the starting rotation. Willey had four saves last year at Franklin Pierce.
“I like Willey as the setup guy,” Van Horn said. “But I'm not saying he couldn't close. That could happen. Right now, it's Jackson.”
Willey doesn't care. He's just having a “blast” with anything Van Horn gives him.
“I just can't believe what is happening,” Willey said of his first eight games with the Hogs. “I rode the bus the last three seasons. We had one bus trip that was 16 hours. We played in a major league park this weekend, then after the game, we got on a jet and were home in time for dinner.
“It's just a blast. Me personally, it's really a blast. But, we have to take care of our business.
“It's fun to see the home runs. It's fun to see how the team is playing defense. We've pitched pretty well. Our bullpen has been very good. Like I said, it's been a blast.”
Then, again, baseball is a long season. It's just getting started. Ask Dave Van Horn. He said the Hogs are sitting ducks with Louisiana Tech coming to town.
“Tech has one of their better teams in a long time,” Van Horn said. “They are older. They have 17, 19 junior college players.”
Arkansas will start Weston Rogers from Springdale Har-Ber against Tech. The Bulldogs have not named a starter. Rogers recorded one out in the victory over Texas Tech. He's a freshman lefthander and is considered a strike thrower with four pitches.
Van Horn said Rogers “has earned a start.” How much he'll pitch depends on how well he does.
“He could throw up to 50 pitches, if he earns that,” Van Horn said.
Van Horn is not sure about the weekend rotation after seeing Blaine Knight and Keaton McKinney both struggle in Houston starts. For sure, there is concern about McKinney, not nearly as good as last year in his two starts. McKinney is coming back from offseason hip surgery.
“Yeah, there is concern,” Van Horn said. “He's as strong as he's ever been. His arm is in great shape. But he's just been rusty.
“He just needs to get his feel back. He has to spot up his pitches. He's been up with the ball. You can't make excuses, you just have to work.”
Knight will get a weekend start if he has a good week in practice.
“As of now, he'll start,” Van Horn said. “But I want to see what he does this week. He had a rough outing. He was not locating. He threw strikes, but it was belt high and they were hitting it hard.”